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Hoist the Jolly Roger!
Pirates in Literature

Hoist the Jolly Roger!
  • Captain Singleton (by )
  • The Coral Island (by )
  • The Gold-Bug (by )
  • The Pirate (by )
  • The Red Rover (by )
  • Hamlet (by )
  • Pericles (by )
  • Antony and Cleopatra (by )
  • Treasure Island (by )
  • Peter Pan and Wendy (by )
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As the phenomenal success of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series demonstrates, pirates never go out of style. The romanticization of pirates continues in from the ancient Greeks to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Pericles, and Antony and Cleopatra to Robert Louis Stevenson’s enduring classic of Treasure Island to J. M Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (based on the two unfortunate characters from Hamlet) to the Dread Pirate Roberts in William Goldman’s spoof titled The Princess Bride.

Children love swashbuckling tales of adventure and derring-do, especially when those stories feature protagonists who, despite their unlawful lifestyles, act for the ultimate good. These include:

Captain Singleton by Daniel Defoe (1720). A child stolen by gypsies from his affluent family grows up to lead a life of piracy in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. An English patriot, he preys mainly upon Spanish ships.

The Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne (1858). Exclusively focused on juvenile heroes, three boys survive a shipwreck only to be caught by the pirate Bloody Bill.

The Gold Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe (1843). After being bitten by a gold-colored bug, William Legrand develops an obsession with gold. His servant Jupiter suspects that the bite has driven his master insane as they search for the treasure buried by the pirate Captain Kidd.
The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott (1824). Pirate Mordaunt Mertoun rescues fellow pirate and, unbeknownst to him, half-brother Clement Cleveland from a shipwreck. A rivalry ensues.

The Red Rover by James Fenimore Cooper (1827). Sailors Dick Fid, free black sailor Scipio Africanus, and Royal Navy officer James Wilder confront the famous pirate, The Red Rover. Although they meet with tragic ends, Scipio and Cassandra, his slave attendant, are considered to be one of the first serious depictions of Black characters in Western literature.

Scarlet Sails (also titled Crimson Sails) by Alexander Grin (1923). This “adolescent” fantasy delights young and mature readers with its tale of romantic love between the outcast daughter of a sailor and the ship’s captain who outfits his ship in accordance with a storyteller’s prophecy.

By Karen M. Smith

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